Atmosphere in the garden – thoughts on a bright summer day

We recently visited a show of John Singer Sargent’s water colors at the Brooklyn Museum. The predominant impression I brought away from that large exhibition was of the significance of light and shade in creating an atmosphere with the emotional power to move a viewer.

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Seeing the Sargent watercolors was a reminder of the light.

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I’ve been loving the light in the garden this summer like no summer before.

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I think a change that has brought much more light into the garden, and made the contrast of light and shade a new constant–I’m referring to the fall of many large White Pines on the south side of the garden in last year’s Hurricane Sandy–has made me see the garden in a new way.

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Now I’m welcoming the bright sunlight and the shade that makes it bright, and the constantly changing broken light.

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I’ve been taking photos to try to capture the bright light–though I well know you can’t make good photos in bright sunlight–and the interplay of light and shade. The brightness is difficult to capture but even flawed efforts show how important a role light and shade have in creating the atmosphere of the garden.

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Shafts of sunlight highlight Bottle Brush Grass (Hystrix patula).

But atmosphere is more than the interplay of light and shade. It has roots in memory, certainly, and in other sources as well.

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I’m recollecting long-ago visits to the Boboli Gardens in Florence, which were the subject of several of those Sargent watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum, and which awakened my own memories of several visits, over several decades, on blazingly hot summer days–when the broken light offered respite and, in retrospect, made wandering alone in the Boboli Gardens a familiar feeling.

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After my first visit, when I explored the gardens in a heightened state of surprise and exhilaration, return visits were different. I felt a sense of familiarity and recognition, and remembrance. Now some of the same feelings come to me in my own garden, though I know they are memories of another garden, really many other gardens, from the past.

So I sometimes view my garden through this glass of memory. This is the power of nostalgia. It’s come with a special intensity this summer …

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… a sense of joyfulness, a kind of translucent singing in the air.

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My garden is very unlike the Boboli Gardens, yet these sunny days awaken emotions associated with those memories. So I have to ask the question. Is there a deeper or more general similarity? If so, what is it? Is it atmosphere, and if so, what atmosphere? What is atmosphere?

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I can’t say the similarity is anything more than the presence of paths to wander through broken sunlight, into the bright sun, into the shade. And paths that hide, then reveal. The ability to wander, to lose oneself, to be surprised. All in all a rather universal phenomenon at this time of summer in most of the world, not unique to the Boboli Gardens, but nonetheless a similarity made more powerful by my past visits there.

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Another similarity with that garden from the past, though at a much different scale, is the hiding and revealing of the landscape. The dark woods in the image above and the shadowy areas in the one below add a richness to the experience of the garden–an  uncertainty that makes the visitor want to see what is hidden, to explore further.

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The uncertainty, the not-knowing is answered in an emotional, almost a musical sense by coming upon such images of concrete certainty as this–the bright, celebratory orange day lilies and the silver of the Mountain Mint …

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… the lyrical image of butterflies feeding on Joe Pye Weed …

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… the tall outline of Silphium laciniatum straining to reach the sky …

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… a variety of different sense impressions–light, dark, rising and falling song of cicadas, the gentle breeze stirring the treetops,  brushing against your neck, fragrance, the occasional buzz of an airplane passing overhead.

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I suppose a garden’s atmosphere depends on density of information–of sense impressions, cultural references, history, physical environment, light, sound, smell, memory, style … almost anything a human being can experience in a garden. Somewhere in this cloud of impressions, memories, facts, prejudices and likes lies a common ground of shared experience, that is similar yet different for every person, so a garden’s atmosphere may be similar or different to varying degrees for different individuals. And it will change with the seasons; mine certainly does; and day by day.

But there must be some commonality of experience, some shared matrix of thought and feeling, to evoke the density of impression we call atmosphere. Something of a garden’s atmosphere must be communal in nature.

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Some arrangements of plants, paths, and light can be said to evoke memories most garden visitors will share. The shady foreground and vertical light in the scene below might suggest a sense of joy upon emerging from darkness, or its opposite, a sense of protection offered by refuge from the dangers of exposure to the light. Both may add to the layers of impressions we call atmosphere.

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Is it possible to characterize the atmosphere of a garden, to give it a name?

This is a naturalistic, woodland garden. It suggests a looseness, a relaxed feeling very different from a more formal garden. It’s in a clearing in the woods, so the woods are a constant presence, and we all know woods are loaded with many different associations for humans, both pleasant and unpleasant. Counteracting, or perhaps more accurately balancing, any sense of unease introduced by the wooded setting is the bright circle of sky opening above. An irregular yet clearly demarcated circle of light defined by the woodland treetops. It is the source of all light, and all life, in the garden. One might compare the surrounding walls of trees and sky overhead to a temple, a spiritual place (shades of William Cullen Bryant’s “The groves were God’s first temples.”). This is also a metaphor common to American forest clearings.

The garden has almost no straight lines but many curves, and barriers of high plants that block the view. It suggests movement and instability, not order and stillness (though it does have a stillness of its own nature). The clearing itself suggests some measure of protection in the midst of the dense woods (you can see danger coming, just as homesteaders on the old frontier cleared around their living space to see danger at a distance),  more a feature of North American gardens than of those in Europe.

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But this is only the large-scale setting. At the level of detail, you can see so-called cultivated plants mixed with natives and, if you will, weeds.

Though the main impression in my garden is of green, you’ll see many silver and white leaves and flowers, as well as highly reflective foliage that registers as silver at certain times of day. These certainly play a role in the garden’s atmosphere, catching the light in different ways at various times of day, capturing and diverting attention, shaping experience in unforeseeable ways.

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Sitting out in the morning, I’m very much aware that I’m sitting in the middle of the woods, in a relatively small clearing that gives me both a sense of exposure and protection. In his book What are Gardens For? Rory Stuart mentions how sounds of roadway traffic or airplanes can spoil the atmosphere of a garden. That isn’t necessarily so. My garden in the woods is distant from, but nevertheless in the flight paths of major airports in New York City, Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey. So in the quietness of the garden, I hear the distant swoosh of airliners thousands of feet overhead. As I sit in the quiet of the morning garden, I recall how protected I feel from the world “out there,” I know my garden as a refuge. I’m also reminded of the sounds of the aircraft of war, and how gardens can be temporary refuges during times of war. I remember stories of gardens in dangerous times, how they can offer temporary protection, how they can offer the illusion that all is well when it isn’t. And I’m reminded of the Biblical quotation from Micah, “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

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And, of course, I often think about life and death, about those whose lives have ended, about peoples who have passed away, cultures and languages gone. Of the people who lived on this land before the coming of the European usurpers. The early American farmers who planted orchards of fruit on these hills now covered by woods. Thus the urge to continue life in the face of death, to create, to change, to make something beautiful. To plant silvery leaved Pulmonarias for the passing delight they bring … a light in the darkness …

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… to make paths that appear to curve into the unknown …

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… to delight in contrasting shapes and textures, to merge with the small and particular …

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… to make plantings that change from day to day, week to week, to celebrate the changes of the seasons, the cycles of life … to escape into technique … layering Joe Pye Weed and Salix ‘Britzensis’ …

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… and to make that layering more complex, suggesting things that grow in conditions alien to us …

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… the birth and life of frogs, such an important part of this garden …

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… and the dark, cool places where more hidden life goes on …

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… the silver feast that Mountain mint (Pycnantheum muticum) makes for bees and wasps  and butterflies …

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… and the chiaroscuro of bright surfaces and dark interiors …

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… the bright pathway into darkness …

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No. I can’t name the atmosphere in this garden. It changes at every step, yet seems to remain the same.

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31 thoughts on “Atmosphere in the garden – thoughts on a bright summer day

  1. It is no wonder you loose yourself in your garden. Your garden is a magical and contemplative place. I also think that sound and smell are important in remembering. When it is hot everything sounds and smells different in the garden. Damp mornings in the garden always remind me of Japan. Same smell, same feel… I also agree with you about the distant noises. Sometimes I can hear trains passing in the distance when I sit in the garden. But that is nice. Very different from the sound of a chainsaw or a radio nextdoor.

  2. I like what you said above “I loose myself in the garden, but I find myself there too.”. I really relate to that. When I’m in my garden I imagine I’ve been there for perhaps half an hour but when I look at a clock I discover it has been two! The bright light and shade at the Boboli are very familiar to me; at first I could relate your garden with its wonderful planting to my experience of the Boboli but thinking about it, I do understand, that magic of moving from one space to another, from one reality to another, from unbearable heat to comparative cool. My garden is placed in open farmland (sheep pasture mostly) and needs more trees to create that feeling of safety. You captured that feeling of almost blinding light and then dappled shade that I find impossible to capture with the camera.

  3. I am always fascinated by atmosphere and mood in a garden — something that is overlooked in all the discussions of color combinations and plant forms. You have given us lots to think about with your wanderings here, and each photo is to be lingered over. I have the advantage now of having seen your garden in real life, but a busy visit day is nothing like the contemplation you experience in your dappled, broken-lighted world of sun and shade.

    1. We had torrents of rain most of today and I have an important visitor tomorrow. The grasses are spread-eagled and many tall plants are leaning and dripping, but there’s nothing I can do without a couple of sunny days. So I hope atmosphere and mood are much in evidence tomorrow. But you do raise a valid question about who the garden is for. My experience is, I think, very different from that of an infrequent visitor. I find that disturbing.

      1. When you know a garden intimately, as obviously you, James, know your own, I think your experience will always be different from that of a visitor, frequent or infrequent. Plus different people respond to gardens in such different ways. In June, touring gardens in England with a small group of women, two gardens elicited completely opposite reactions. One person thought a particular garden was the best of the 20+ we saw, another thought it was the worst. One person almost had to pried out of a second garden, another retreated to the bus as quickly as she could. The atmosphere and mood of a garden change so much from day to day, and from hour to hour. With the deep knowledge of a garden that comes over time, our experience is layered. A visitor doesn’t have that range of experience, and so sees things differently. I don’t understand why this disturbs you. Can you explain?

        1. I agree with you, I think. What disturbs me is the difficulty, or perhaps the impossibility, of communication of something that probably can’t ever be expressed in words. That is what disturbs me. It’s much deeper than one person liking a garden and another not liking it. I’ve been listening to Beethoven’s late string quartets in recent weeks, after knowing them for many years. I feel much the same about wanting to communicate something I feel or know on some deep level when I hear them, but that, too, can’t be communicated in words. There is the desire to share something that may be impossible to share.

          1. Ok, now I get it. And I understand the feeling. When I walk in the woods, on what I call the In Transit trail, I have an experience that is much deeper than words can express. If I’m alone, that is. If I’m walking with someone who is seeing it for the first time, I feel almost nothing — I’m too busy wondering about what they are experiencing. Only once have I walked that trail with someone who seemed to feel about it as I did. We didn’t need to talk.

  4. Absolutely stunning, everything – I don’t know even where to start commenting, so I don’t. I just love every single glimpse of your garden, James.

  5. An absolute joy James. Its got the ‘naturalness’ that the Natural ‘movement’ seems to miss..by a long shot..I am so over ‘academic’ gardening! 10/10+
    Best Bombardiers
    Billy Bucket

  6. Thanks, Mr. Bucket. I’m really looking forward to seeing your garden next February. I think we’ll drive along the coast, spending one overnight, then head up to Noorat before the long drive back to Melbourne.

      1. Yup Faisal and James… I am so over all the defining and packaging of ‘garden’. I have resisted writing a book about my blot on the landscape largely because of this. Nothing can capture ‘atmosphere’ like atmosphere itself! The garden world is much more about the atmosphere of the inside of the wallet/till and all the components (products) that make up gardens (including books) than any comprehensive ‘finished’ product. (that be that thing by the name of GARDEN) You and I have created landscapes that do not pander to the product driven world of da INDUSTRY..Did anyone mention sustainability?

        James I am very much looking forward to your visit. Perhaps Faisal can drag himself away from stodgy old Melbourne town for the day too!

        1. Billy, yes, atmosphere, like music, a poem, a painting, can’t be reduced to words, explained, even though the impulse to try is a powerful one. It is and it is nothing else. Yes, I wonder if Faisal is up to a trip.

  7. A minor hi-jack
    http://williammartinswigandiaagardenofthesun.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/the-movie.html
    :WARNING:
    :No Noel Kingsbury’s were killed in the making of this wee movie.
    :Product may contain traces of irony.
    :Keep off the crass.
    :No thinkers allowed.
    :Garden is the product we never make whilst knee deep in the compost bucket.
    :No compost under the age of 9.5 permitted.
    :Compost is a concept by which we measure our pain.
    :Beware the ghost of I.H.F.
    :Self seeders welcome.
    :Garden available for wakes and walks.
    :Leave no good taste behind when you leave.
    :Shut the bloody gate we are in cow territory.

  8. Ummm can’t you Americans leave ‘god’ out of anything????
    “It is the source of all light, and all life, in the garden. One might compare the surrounding walls of trees and sky overhead to a temple, a spiritual place (shades of William Cullen Bryant’s “The groves were God’s first temples.”). This is also a metaphor common to American forest clearings.”

    1. I was only pointing out a cultural garden reference popular and very long-lived in this country. Maybe it’s because I was raised as a Southern Baptist. They tend to think they know … there I go again. About to bring god back into the discussion.

  9. I have returned (like a bad smell) I don’t know of ANY other garden (plant space) that goes anywhere near your ensemble..forget the European contrivances (Anal Lloydian stuff) You have created one of the very few gardens that transcends the borders and boundaries of garden as art in its purist form. Hats off to you James.

    1. I don’t know what to say to that, Billy. Thank you. I don’t feel my garden measures up to such a compliment–but I surely wish I could. I’ll certainly keep doing what I do.

  10. Loved this post. I’m always interested in your exploration of mood and memory, particularly as it overlays with your garden. I’ve been reading your blog for so many years now, that as I write or design, your garden frequently comes to mind. Which is interesting in itself–I’ve never been there. Yet I have my own memory of it, coming to me particularly when I’m yearning for planting that evokes a certain mood.

    As for the “god” stuff, that line of yours that William referenced was my favorite. Not because I heard “god” in it, but because I have been feeling very ungrounded lately, and that line made me feel particularly grounded.

    And I absolutely agree with William’s statement about one of the few gardens that transcends borders and boundaries. Yours is a celebration of both artifice and otherness. The constant interplay of the two is delightful.

    1. Thomas, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. And I’m always grateful to you for your words, which often express something I feel but have been silent about. By the way, I was very happy to see you are speaking at the New York Botanical Garden winter lecture series. I will certainly be there, and I hope we can meet. If you’ll be in town long enough, I’d love to have dinner with you. Perhaps we could arrange a group (we did that for Tom Stuart-Smith’s lecture last year, though TSS wasn’t at the dinner, nor was he aware of it!).

    2. Thomas as the Pommies say..I was somewhat ‘Taking the piss’ (partly) about all this GOD stuff! Let us pray.

      This post reminds me of this extraordinary song lyric by David Bowie. (Hunky Dory) I often wonder what sort of garden artists like Bowie would make if they channeled some of that brilliant creative energy into the other green world! Perhaps the music IS their garden!

      The Bewlay Brothers
      by David Bowie

      And so the story goes they wore the clothes
      They said the things to make it seem improbable
      The whale of a lie like they hope it was
      And the Goodmen Tomorrow
      Had their feet in the wallow
      And their heads of Brawn were nicer shorn
      And how they bought their positions with saccharin and trust
      And the world was asleep to our latent fuss
      Sighing, the swirl through the streets
      Like the crust of the sun
      The Bewlay Brothers
      In our Wings that Bark
      Flashing teeth of Brass
      Standing tall in the dark
      Oh, And we were Gone
      Hanging out with your Dwarf Men
      We were so turned on
      By your lack of conclusions

      I was Stone and he was Wax
      So he could scream, and still relax, unbelievable
      And we frightened the small children away
      And our talk was old and dust would flow
      Thru our veins and Lo! it was midnight
      Back at the kitchen door
      Like the grim face on the Cathedral floor
      And the solid book we wrote
      Cannot be found today
      And it was Stalking time for the Moonboys
      The Bewlay Brothers
      With our backs on the arch
      In the Devil-may-be-here
      But He can’t sing about that
      Oh, And we were Gone
      Real Cool Traders
      We were so Turned On
      You thought we were Fakers

      Now the dress is hung, the ticket pawned
      The Factor Max that proved the fact
      Is melted down
      And woven on the edging of my pillow
      Now my Brother lays upon the Rocks
      He could be dead, He could be not
      He could be You
      He’s Chameleon, Comedian, Corinthian and Caricature
      Shooting-up Pie-in-the-Sky
      The Bewlay Brothers
      In the feeble and the Bad
      Bewlay Brothers
      In the Blessed and Cold
      In the Crutch-hungry Dark
      Was where we flayed our Mark
      Oh, and we were Gone
      Kings of Oblivion
      We were so Turned On
      In the Mind-Warp Pavilion

      Lay me place and bake me Pie
      I’m starving for me Gravy
      Leave my shoes, and door unlocked
      I might just slip away, hey

      Just for the Day, Hey!
      Hey, Please come Away, Hey!
      Just for the Day, Hey!
      Please come Away, Hey!
      Please come Away, Hey!
      Just for the Day
      Please come Away
      Please come Away
      Please come Away
      Please come Away
      Away
      (Away)
      Away

      I hope the copyright people don’t mind me posting this!!

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